Are Liberals Permitted to Prefer Buses to Trains? A Reply to Jon Rynn

By Roosevelt Institute |

train-200Liberals must be able to disagree on technical issues of energy or transportation without facing censorship or excommunication.

Are liberals permitted to believe that mass transit dollars may be better spent on buses than on passenger rail? Are progressives allowed to be skeptical about the prospects for scaling up wind and solar power? The answer is no, if Jon Rynn is to be believed.

In a recent post on New Deal 2.0, Mr. Rynn, a political scientist who is the author of a book entitled Manufacturing Green Prosperity, accused me of being “center right.” This false characterization of my views was picked up by Grist and Campaign for America’s Future and rocketed around the progressive blogosphere.

Am I “center right”? I support sexual rights and reproductive rights, reducing carbon emissions by methods that do not cripple economic growth, making the minimum wage a living wage indexed to productivity growth, expanding Social Security and lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap. I favor massive increases in public investment in infrastructure and R&D and intelligent public support for domestic manufacturing. Having spent my youth as a neoconservative Democrat — that is, a Kennedy-Johnson Cold War liberal — I have spent two-thirds of my career criticizing the American right, in books including Up From Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America. I co-founded the New America Foundation, and co-direct its Economic Growth Program, in order to modernize New Deal liberalism for the twenty-first century. I can even one-up Mr. Rynn, who according to his Grist profile is “carless” but lives in a New York suburb; I am a carless apartment renter who lives in downtown Washington, D.C., though I do not consider my lifestyle choices to be evidence of superior ecological virtue on my part.

In spite of all this, according to Mr. Rynn, I am “center right,” because I have the temerity to question the cost effectiveness of passenger rail compared to bus transit, and because I have been convinced by reading genuine energy experts including Vaclav Smil, Jesse Ausubel and Steven Chu that it would be easier to reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal with natural gas and nuclear power than by trying to scale up solar and wind energy, which have legitimate but minor roles to play.

Do such opinions make me right-wing? Energy sources are not distributed along the political spectrum, with petroleum and coal on the right and solar and wind on the left and natural gas and nuclear energy to the right of center. Energy sources do not have political affiliations. Neither do modes of transportation. Trains are not progressive and cars, buses and planes are not reactionary. Disputes over technical issues like these do not involve any core principles of liberalism.

To be sure, there are core principles of the Rooseveltian liberalism I have devoted a quarter century to defending against critics on the right and left alike. We New Deal liberals disagree with conservatives in including sexual, reproductive and privacy rights among natural rights. We disagree with libertarians in believing that economic rights, which necessarily vary with time and place, are necessary if people are to secure their timeless natural rights. And we disagree with collectivist radicals in favoring a limited but central place for private property and private enterprise in a mixed economy.

On issues other than these, liberals should be allowed to disagree. I wrote the sharp criticism in Salon of what I characterized as train-and-windmill dogmatism that Mr. Rynn objects to because I perceive a premature closing down of debate on the center-left in the areas of energy policy and transportation policy. Mr. Rynn has a right to his opinions on these issues, but by characterizing liberals who disagree as “center-right” he implies that there can be only one legitimate liberal position.

It is particularly ironic that new urbanists and green activists should set themselves up as arbiters of who is and is not a genuine liberal. While each of these new social movements has valid insights, these schools of thought have evolved only in the last generation and are Johnny-Come-Latelys to the eighty-year-old Rooseveltian liberal tradition. The urbanist movement was inspired by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s and Andres Duany and his allies in the 1980s. The contemporary green movement has its roots, not in traditional liberal conservationism, but in the 1960s counterculture in Europe and the U.S. In the last decade the two movements merged to form what I call green urbanism. Taking advantage of the trend toward “greenwashing” everything, urbanist proponents of “densification” opportunistically replaced their earlier critiques of so-called “sprawl” for creating social anomie and ugly tract homes with the specious green argument that downtown apartment dwellers who use subsidized mass transit — in other words, people like me — are better for the planet than car-driving, home-owning suburbanites who cannot afford the downtown rents paid by people like me. (The argument is specious because decarbonizing energy generation and increasing fuel efficiency can do far more to reduce carbon emissions than manipulating residential patterns).

Franklin Roosevelt, like his cousin Theodore, was a pioneering conservationist. At the same time, like many other progressives of his age, including his uncle Frederick Delano of the Regional Planning Association and Lewis Mumford, the great scholar of cities, the squire of Hyde Park disliked urban residential congestion and, without endorsing strip malls in advance, hoped that automobility and electricity would allow the dispersal of population and industry in the low-rise “regional cities” of the new “neotechnic” era (Mumford’s term). FDR was not only the patron saint of single-family home loans for working class and middle class Americans but also the promoter of the interstate highway system that was finally created under Eisenhower. FDR’s reluctance to support urban public housing was vindicated by 1972, when Oscar Newman in Defensible Space demonstrated that crime and anomie were much greater in central-city high-rises like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis than in low-rise housing projects.

If today’s more strident critics of automobility and suburbanism are correct, then FDR was a menace to the ecosystem because he did not seek to discourage automobile use and concentrate the population in high-rise downtowns connected by passenger rail. Proponents of high-density urbanism should be honest and admit that the decentralized, low-density, car- and bus-based society that they are attacking is one of the major legacies of mid-twentieth century New Deal liberalism.

Notwithstanding all this, my conception of American liberalism is more ecumenical than Mr. Rynn’s. A big tent progressivism would not exclude liberals who do not share FDR’s favorable view of low-density living. It would never occur to me to accuse Mr. Rynn of being right wing merely because he disagrees with on technical issues of energy or transportation. We liberals need less censorship and more debate among ourselves — and fewer attempted excommunications.

Michael Lind is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and author of Up From Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America.

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